Stories: How to Save America, One Conversation at a Time

“…tolerance and civility are too low a standard for a great country based on competitive excellence. You need to be grateful for the other side, just as you should be grateful for having more than one team in your favorite sports league.”

Arthur C. Brooks

Historically America has had a problem with racism against people of Chinese origin. From newspapers that described the “Yellow Peril” to the novels that detailed the exploits of evil Dr. Fu Manchu, there was an entrenched prejudice against Chinese Americans that would remain a part of American life until well into the second half of the 20th Century. 

In the early 1930s, a researcher named Richard Lapiere wanted to better understand this racism but in the process of doing so he uncovered a concept that could be a critical lynchpin in any quest to bridge some of the divides that plague our day-to-day political discussion.

Lapiere asked a student of his who happened to be Chinese if he would be willing to visit 250 restaurants and hotels spread throughout the United States and ask for accommodation. Afterwards, he sent an “attitude survey” to each establishment, asking for their attitudes toward people of Chinese descent. The idea was to compare what people say they will do in the abstract versus what they actually do when confronted with that abstraction in real life.

The contrast was marked. 90% of the managers of these restaurants and hotels claimed on the survey that they would not accommodate guests of Chinese descent. But this flew in the face of what they actually did. When Prof. Lapiere’s student and his wife visited these establishments, they were admitted all but one time. In fact, Lapiere judged that 40 percent of the time they actually received above-average service.

Lapiere was trying to point out the difference between our reported attitudes on surveys and what we actually do in real life, and the implications for social science research. But what he stumbled upon speaks about who we are as people on a much deeper level. The fact is that face-to-face interaction with people we think we don’t like often yields something a lot different than what we expected. The point is that seeing someone face-to-face is a lot different than dealing with the idea of that person. When we attach labels to other groups, whether it be based on their race, socioeconomic status, or political views, we dehumanize them. Calling someone a “SJW” or a “Becky” on social media makes it easy to miss that there is, in fact, a person there.

As our politics becomes ever more rancorous and polarized, and as civilized political discussion becomes less and less the norm, there are a few peopleworking in the other direction. One of those people is Arthur C. Brooks, and his new book is Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt. It is a compelling argument in favor of working to bridge divides and to acknowledge our shared humanity so that we can move forward, together. 

And what a timely work it is. There is a confluence of factors at work in America today that are driving us apart. Between the anonymous nature of social media, the “sorting out” of our different American subcultures, and the strong sense of “otherness” that has come to pervade nearly every facet of our political discourse, it’s no wonder why it seems like we are coming apart. And the deleterious effects are easy to see all around us. Families are loath to even mention political topics, we see violent clashes at political rallies, and most insidious of all, a declinein face-to-face engagement. We don’t even knowwho the person on the other side of the fence is likely to be anymore.

But the best part of the work is its optimism. Everyone knows that there is a problem. But it’s what you intend to do about it that really matters. Brooks is a master of using data to explain to us what we have in common with the “other side.” He cites neurological studies that show us the power of a human story. He cites the history of the Soviet experience to warn against dehumanizing those with whom we disagree. He points out the futility of winning arguments: there is an actual demonstrated psychological phenomena (called “the boomerang effect”) that if you belittle or berate someone, they are actually much lesslikely to change their minds. Facts are stubborn, but stories and connectionare really what bridge divides. He cites the research of Jon Haidtwho shows that, in fact, people on both sides of the divide are deeply moral. We just have some key differences in our moral foundations that result in different opinions on policy. 

Brooks then goes on to boil it all down to 5 rules that, if followed, I believe would go a long way to getting us back on the right path as a nation:

  1. Stand up to the man. Refuse to be used by the powerful. 
  2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited, and say things people don’t expect. 
  3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult. 
  4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas. 
  5. Tune out: Disconnect more from unproductive debates.

I think all of these rules are great. But I think they can be synthesized even further. The key takeaway for me was the theme of focusing on the human side of our political debates. If I had to boil it down to one phrase, it would be something along the lines of “focus on the human connection, listen their stories.” If we can remember to do this, we will know that only by turning logging off of social media, turning off cable TV, and engaging face-to-face with the people in our community can we truly get at the problems that plague us. It’s about getting to know “them,” the “other,” their stories, their experiences. Only by making an honest attempt at understanding their lives can we get back on the path to a healthy competition of ideas. It will take a lot of empathic connection, but it can be done, little by little, day by day, conversation by conversation.

I’m going to be trying to do this within the manner of this blog by reading and reviewing some of the newer books that are coming out from the other side of the spectrum. Stay tuned… 

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